The Next Trend in Wine?

Natural Wine. Naturally.

Natural wines are catching the attention of sommeliers and patrons alike. Just the sound of it is appealing. Natural. There can’t be anything wrong with that? Right? Well, as with most things, there is the good and bad with natural wines.

First, let’s be sure we are all talking about the same thing. Natural wines are wines that have been produced with minimal human intervention in both the vineyard and the winery. The idea is that the wines will be better if nothing is added or taken away. Mother Nature is left to have her way and the results can sometimes be very tasty.

This process is different from the organic and bio-dynamic wine-making processes, as they are principally farming practices. Organics main thrust is that no chemicals are used in the vineyard. Bio-dynamics is all about farming in sync with the earth’s cycles. Having said that, a lot of natural wines are produced organically, at the very least, and often bio-dynamically as well.

There is no legal definition for natural wines. No official or government regulations have been adopted, so a number of organizations have created their own. The result is that there is no clear consensus in terms of what a natural wine really is, so buyer beware.

Generally, it is accepted that a few criteria should be met for a wine to be considered natural. First, the grapes should be farmed organically and/or bio-dynamically, regardless of any outside certification in regards to these processes. The fruit should develop naturally in the vineyard and yield and canopy management are the only techniques the vineyard manager should employ. Keeping yields low on each vine allows fruit flavours to be as concentrated as possible. Canopy management, which  controls leaf production, allows manipulation of ripening speed and permits a degree of control over sugar and acid development. Dry farming (no irrigation) is also encouraged.

Fruit should be picked manually and any use of sulphur is kept to an absolute minimum. Once the fruit arrives in the winery, no sugar can be added to increase alcohol. No cultured yeasts can be employed to manipulate the flavour profile or influence fermentation temperatures. There can be no addition of tartaric acid to raise acidity or potassium bicarbonate to lower it.

There can also be no addition of colouring to improve appearance, or glycol to improve weight and mouthfeel. New or newish oak barrels that add flavour must be abstained from unless older inert barrels are employed simply as vessels to hold the wine. No extract, powder, chips, or staves are allowed either.

Before bottling, winemakers must avoid cold stabilization to reduce tartaric crystals and fining and/or filtration is discouraged.  Crazy futuristic technology to concentrate and manage flavours like cryo-extraction, micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, spinning cones, and temperature-controlled fermentation must be avoided too.

The results after all of this abstinence? Natural wine. Is it better? Well, that is up to the individual. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? It certainly is in this case. If you enjoy concentrated and full wines, that’s hard to achieve. If you want a clear wine that is jewel bright in the glass, you’re not going to get that either.

As there is no established certification body and the term has no legal status, winemakers who describe themselves (or are described by others) as “natural” often differ in what they consider to be an acceptable level of intervention. The term is therefore proving to be very confusing to consumers, so it’s important that you can educate them.

So, at the end of the day, natural wine is a bit of a leap of faith. However, if your clientele insists on organic and bio-dynamic, then natural wines may fit with your offerings.

There is not a huge selection in the market, so be discerning. Ask your agents or reps to let you taste the wines and involve your staff. The best way to sell these products is to ensure staff feels confident they can provide a personal recommendation.

Tim Ellison is a Certified Sommelier and Chef-de-Cuisine with almost 50 years of industry experience. He is currently the Director of Food and Beverage Service at The Vancouver Club. And, he drinks wine, naturally.